Horror. Science Fiction. Romance. There are many kinds of stories to tell, and although every story is unique, there are, generally speaking, some elements that are universal:
– The Hero
– The Journey
– The Prize
– The Great Obstacle
Or, I should say, the Hero(es)-slash-Heroine(s) – what some writers refer to as the “H/H.” This is the protagonist, the person your story is about. The H/H is your Frodo Baggins, your Elizabeth Bennett, your Harriet the Spy, or even your Benji!
We all want something. Health, happiness, long life. And a million dollars. Sometimes we want to foil a bank robbery, solve an ancient riddle before time runs out, or marry the man of our dreams.
In Lord of the Rings, the prize was getting the ring to the fires of Mordor. In Pride and Prejudice it was a good marriage with a suitable spouse.
Sometimes the prize starts out to be one thing and turns out to be another. In Lassie Come Home (a personal favorite of mine when I was a child), the prize seems to be for Joe to get his dog back. But it turns out to be much more: it’s the reuniting of the hearts of a family, and the rejuvenation of an entire town.
Whatever the prize is for your hero, make sure you know it, even if your hero doesn’t yet.
All heroes are headed somewhere. They’re not just sitting on their hands while events unfold around them. They are going somewhere, whether it’s a physical journey or an emotional one. And usually that journey is toward their Prize, whatever that is for them.
In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s prize was Ashley. Her emotional journey took her through the Civil War, three marriages, the death of two husbands, childbirth, the death of her daughter, and a relationship with the unforgettable Rhett Butler. And how did her journey end? With the realization that her actual prize was Rhett himself.
Sometimes a journey is both physical and emotional. In that case, each journey has a prize of its own. For Lassie, the physical journey had only one prize: to be in her usual spot when Joe got out of school. The prize for her emotional journey was the return to her loving family and, as mentioned above, the return of a town to something of its former glory.
The Great Obstacle
If Frodo and company had just been able to hop into a limo and ride to Mordor in air-conditioned comfort, would we really have lasted through three novels? Of course not. And so we have our Great Obstacle, in the power of Sauron, who sent forth many other obstacles to impede the progress of our noble heroes.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family also faced a multitude of obstacles: lack of money, great distance, the flaws in their own family coalescence, the heartless opportunism of others, and the abject poverty of an entire nation.
But regardless of whether you’re writing a literary masterpiece, a tale of adventure and fantasy, or a simple homespun romance, every story must have a great obstacle. Sometimes the greatest obstacles are the hero’s own character flaws which are preventing him from reaching his goals.
Of all these – the Hero, the Prize, the Journey and the Great Obstacle – is there one that you think is more important than the others?